Editorial (Upstream Journal): December 19, 2003

Orange Farm says no to water meters

The struggle against water privatization in a South Africa township


by Bricks Makolo

They came in the name of development to bring free and clean water by means of pre-paid meters. The decision to install the meters had already been made. They never consulted the residents as to the type of water services the community would prefer.

Johannesburg Water, a private company that is part of the French transnational corporation Suez Lyonnaise, was given a contract to manage Johannesburg's water services. In 2001 they came to install meters in Orange Farm. Now we face a crisis around water delivery, notably the installation of pre-paid meter.

A minimal infrastructure for water services was already in place. People were receiving water to meet their basic needs, although in certain areas water was only provided in the form of communal standpipes. The constitutional right to water was thus being met.

The residents of Orange Farm resisted the approach of Johannesburg Water and made local government aware that the community was not in agreement with pre-paid meters. The community organised itself into the Orange Farm Water Crisis committee and joined forces with similar organisations, in Gauteng under the umbrella of the Anti-Privatisation Forum.

The crisis committee marched repeatedly on local government and presented memorandums spelled out their demands, including the free water promised by the ANC in the RDP and in the 1999 local government elections.

Local government rejected these demands and divided the people saying that installing the meters would create jobs for the unemployed.

Those employed, with the assistance of the police, harassed those against pre-payment meters. One of the residents active in the campaign, the late comrade Emily Lengolo, was assassinated in the middle of the night while sleeping at home. Until today, it is not known who was responsible as the police are failing to investigate. The killers are still at large and others fighting for their rights worry that their lives are also at risk.

The people of Orange Farm see the meters as denying them their freedom and constitutional rights. They developed the slogan "Destroy the meters and enjoy free water". This has now become a slogan for the international movement advancing people's right to water.

Since the meters have been installed, people are experiencing hardship. At night, people find that the meters have cut off their water. You cannot talk to a meter, so people are forced to devise other means to get water. They have to borrow from neighbours or walk further afield to get water. Those with small vegetable gardens are unable to water their vegetables, which die as a result.

Johannesburg Water claims that the pre-payment water system allows people to receive the first 6 000 litres per household per month for free, but this is not happening. In fact, when you purchase the tokens for water there is nothing on the slips of purchase to indicate how many litres have been paid for.

Now Johannesburg Water is trying to install pre-paid meters in Phiri, Soweto. The company is again imposing the meters on an unwilling community and victimising those that are organising against the meters, in the form of harassment, arrests and criminal charges.

There are two main reasons behind the attempt to impose pre-paid meters on communities. The first is the privatisation of the water service in Johannesburg. The second reason relates to the construction of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. This is a series of dams and tunnels to divert water from the Orange River to the Vaal River, Gauteng and surrounding provinces.

This is an enormously expensive project designed by the World Bank during the years of Apartheid. In essence, the project puts billions of rands into the pockets of transnational corporations from Europe and North America to build infrastructure that is not even needed.

It is for these reasons that the Orange Farm community will continue to contest pre-paid meters and privatisation and link up with communities in Gauteng, the rest of South Africa, Lesotho, Canada and other countries to stand together against this exploitation and for the right of water for all!

The struggle is thus indeed about challenging private interests and promoting public goods. It is a struggle to root out neo-liberalism and replace it with a system that addresses peoples' needs. In Orange Farm, we are taking up the struggle for water as one aspect of a broader struggle for a decent life for all!